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  • Dr Enoch Bergman, Swans Veterinary Services

Laying the Groundwork for Early Weaning Calves

Updated: 4 days ago

Dr Enoch Bergman, Swans Veterinary Services

ASHEEP & BEEF is currently involved in a number of Producer Demonstration Site (PDS) projects, funded by Meat & Livestock Australia. One of the more interesting projects is attempting to “Optimise the Age of Weaning of Cattle”.

We know that cows and calves consume far greater quantities of feed when co-grazed than when separated. The project target is to show that calves weaned earlier can reduce the feed requirements of the cows within a production system without significantly reducing the quality or weight of the calves themselves.

Last season was our first year of the project, and we learned some hard lessons. We found that, indeed, the cows whose calves were weaned did enjoy a measurable and visually obvious advantage over their herd mates whose calves remained unweaned. Had we realised the season that was upon us, perhaps more producers would have implemented early weaning across a larger portion of their herd in many cases, as the season started poorly and ended early. However, the same poor season, which would have been good motivation to wean calves early to protect their dams, also meant that the calves weaned early were, in many cases, transitioned onto feedstuffs which were not optimal for ensuring the weaned calves went forward. As the lead researcher on the project, I was actually quite distressed by the reduction in weights we saw in some instances, as were the participating producers. Most of the involved producers have been fairly philosophical, as they were very keen to see how far we could push the system. Further, as the season has progressed, the benefits to the cows whose calves had been weaned earlier has become more evident, and interest in the project is beginning to become more positive in nature.

As we progress into the next season, we are very interested to see what reproductive advantages may have been conferred to the cows whose calves had been weaned early and whether those cows have maintained a better body condition score than their herd mates.

Participating producers who had sold their calves at weaning or shortly after weaning have crystalised their losses in regard to the weight check the weaned calves suffered, however, the enrolled producers who have held on to their calves as future grass finished cattle, and the replacement heifers derived from the early weaned groups will provide us some further information as to the longer term implications of having been weaned early.

Early weaning (weaning earlier than we traditionally wean locally) has been well documented to potentially improve the stocking density of individual production systems and to improve the kilograms of turned off beef per hectare by redirecting feed being used to produce milk to feed being fed directed to calves with greater nutritional efficiency. However, weaned calves require more digestible protein than adult cows and if calves are weaned early, in order to continue to grow at a reasonable rate, their nutrition must match their requirements.

Protein and carbohydrate supplementation in the paddock is a common practice locally amongst sheep producers and some beef producers. In light of the tough seasonal conditions we are all operating under locally, some producers are feeding pellets or grain mixes to their cows with calves at foot.

Due to the season, I am one of those producers. I have purchased 4 Universal lick feeders from Ben of UTF in Goomalling and am supplementing my cows in the paddock along with my dwindling supply of hay and straw.

In preparation for another poor season, should we get a repeat of last year, I have ordered creep feeders to bolt to my Universal feeders once the paddock feed is sufficient to support our breeders.

Lick feeder with creep feeder bars for calves.

My logic is to allow the cows to train our calves to access the lick feeders before we convert the feeders to creep feeders. Should we need to wean our calves early this season, they can be supplemented in the paddock on a feedstuff they are already familiar with.

I am confident that if we can keep the protein level of the feed they ingest up around 16-18% they should continue to gain weight at a similar rate that they would have had they stayed on their mothers without sacrificing her body condition and wasting precious feed.

The point of this article is to acknowledge that early weaning can be a very useful tool, but to utilise it effectively, we may have to plan ahead. Calves require better nutrition than cows to continue to thrive, with protein being especially important. If you are being pushed into a corner, having to wean early, or even if you want to wean earlier in order to run more breeders in your enterprise, having a plan for those weaners is of critical importance.

Further details on the project structure can be found here.


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